Understanding Ponyboy as a Dynamic Character: The Outsiders is the story of Ponyboy’s coming of age. As the novel progresses, he reaches a deeper understanding of who he is within his family, neighborhood, and community. At first, Ponyboy is confused about his brother as an authority figure, unsure of whom to look to for guidance among his rag-tag gang of buddies, the greasers. As the tragic events of the novel unfold, Ponyboy looks to those around him with wiser eyes. This effect is underscored by the narrative conceit of the novel revealed in final chapter: the book itself is an essay that Ponyboy writes to describe what he has learned.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast Ponyboy’s characteristics at the start and end of the story. How do his appearance, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings develop over the course of the text?
- For discussion: Identify key turning points for Ponyboy. Which events in the text cause Ponyboy to view the world around him in a significantly new way? How and what does Ponyboy learn?
- For discussion: Are any of the other characters in the text dynamic? Who? How do they change in the text?
- For discussion: Are the changes Ponyboy experiences typical of adolescence? Why or why not?
Analyzing Character Foils to Understand Social Themes: In his narration, Ponyboy describes the mix of characters who make up his family and community. Darry and Dally are both older characters who survive a troubled adolescence to act as caregivers; Sodapop and Bob are both good-looking boys who are becoming adults without parental guidance; Ponyboy and Johnny are learning who they are as individuals amid troubled home lives and the threat of gang violence. All of these characters struggle against the same backdrop of economic inequality, coupled with prejudicial social expectations. These pairings illuminate the characters and reveal the novel’s deeper thematic currents. By comparing and contrasting character foils, students can draw conclusions about social themes in the text.
- For discussion: Which characters in the text act as character foils? Which characters have strong, unavoidable similarities, yet make different choices at critical turning points in their lives?
- For discussion: Compare and contrast the greasers and the Socs as groups, considering both the prejudices they face and how they treat each other. Which characters, either greaser or Soc, behave contrary to the expectations of their social group? How does this behavior affect their development as characters?
Nothing Gold Can Stay: When Ponyboy and Johnny are hiding out in the church, Ponyboy wakes early one morning and catches a melting, misty, golden sunrise. Startled to find Johnny watching the sunrise over his shoulder, Ponyboy listens as Johnny recites Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The poem serves as a thematic totem for the novel, initially calling to mind the inevitable loss of innocence. When Johnny reminds Ponyboy to “stay gold” in their final interaction, the meaning of the allusion continues to expand, touching on the importance of staying true to one’s authentic self within the turbulence of life.
- For discussion: Analyze with students the connotations of the adjective “gold.” What does the word literally mean, and what does it suggest?
- For discussion: For Ponyboy and Johnny, which things are “golden”? What does the word signify within the poem, and what significance does it carry over the course of the story?
- For discussion: Ask students to consider how rhyme, diction, and imagery develop themes within the poem. How do themes within Frost’s poem compare and contrast with those in Hinton’s novel?
Introducing Situational Irony: One of the first story components that Ponyboy describes is the conflict between...
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the greasers and the Socs. He’s afraid to walk home from the movies as a greaser, for fear of getting jumped by Socs. He describes the Socs and the greasers as opposites: rich and poor, West side and East side, presumed innocent and presumed guilty. Yet by the end of the novel, Ponyboy is struck by the similarities between his friends and his foes. Bob’s parents struggle to give him the supervision and guidance he needs in the same way that Darry struggles to parent Ponyboy. Randy struggles to conform to the Soc’s expectations of him in the same way that Ponyboy struggles to live up to the standards of the greasers. This constant breaking down of assumed differences offers a rich vein of situational irony, a device in which characters behave in unexpected ways. Thus the story stands as a vehicle by which to introduce students to the concept of situational irony and how it develops themes in the text.
- For discussion: Describe the opening situations of both the greasers and the Socs. Who are they? How are their groups defined? What do outsiders think of them, and how do they view themselves? Compare and contrast the two groups.
- For discussion: Consider the new information that is revealed about Darry, Bob, Randy, and Ponyboy over the course of the text. Which similarities exist between these characters as individuals?
- For discussion: How does the use of situational irony develop themes in the text? How does it affect the reader’s experience?
- For discussion: Aside from the upending of expected differences between the Socs and greasers, are there other instances of situational irony in the text? If so, what are they?
Defining Archetypal American Teens: In The Outsiders, Hinton captured the zeitgeist of teenage life in mid 20th-century America. Her depiction of the greasers and the Socs captures a world defined by a dichotomous social conflict and populated by individuals who question and challenge the status quo. This parallels a major social dynamic of the 1960s when Hinton was writing: the coming of age of the baby boomer generation, who questioned and challenged the prevalent order of the Cold War world. From the wayward if misunderstood greaser living on the wrong side of the tracks to the heartless jocks who bully others to boost their own reputations, The Outsiders defines and defies archetypes that have resonated throughout American culture for the last 60 years.
- For discussion: How does Ponyboy describe the social expectations and prejudices facing the greasers and the Socs?
- For discussion: How do the greasers and the Socs actually behave? Consider both the dynamics of each a group and the individuals within who either conform to or subvert group expectations.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast the greasers and the Socs with other adolescent characters with whom students are familiar. How do the characters in The Outsiders compare and contrast with other exemplars of the archetype?
- For discussion: In what ways do these archetypes reflect the adolescent experience today? In what ways do they diverge?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
There Are No Characters of Color: Though Johnny makes reference to having slightly darker skin than Ponyboy, the novel is made up of white characters. Students will be quick to notice that this pattern makes for an incomplete portrait of life and social conflict in the midcentury United States. It doesn’t help that Johnny and Ponyboy take a sympathetic view of “gallant” Confederate men from the Civil War era in their discussion of Gone With the Wind.
- What to do: Take this moment as an opportunity to study the demographics of American culture. Hinton was writing in Oklahoma in 1965. What was the ethnic makeup of rural communities like those in Oklahoma in the 1960s? Has it changed since then?
- What to do: Point out that low socioeconomic status can be a cause of persecution. Discuss the way in which this socioeconomic persecution compounds with gender and racial persecution in American culture.
- What to do: Combine The Outsiders with other texts to provide a diverse chorus of voices depicting the midcentury American experience.
The Female Characters are Overly Simplistic: Despite being written by a woman, the novel is narrated by a man and largely follows the actions of young men. Because the novel mostly portrays male perspectives, it often depicts the scant female characters as either saints or sinners. Cherry is an idealized character without flaws who possess unique insight and the near savior-like capacity to see beyond conflict toward love, forgiveness, and redemption. Meanwhile, the multitude of unnamed low-income girls in the text, as well as Sodapop’s girlfriend, are sexualized, objectified, villainized, and denigrated by their male counterparts.
- What to do: Discuss with students the implications of Hinton’s authorial choice to make Ponyboy her narrator. What is Ponyboy’s perspective when it comes to the women around him? What are the limitations of his perspective? How does his understanding of women change over the course of the text?
- What to do: Analyze Cherry’s development as a character in the text. In what ways does her character evolve? What are her conflicts, and what motivates her to ally with the greasers?
- What to do: Engage students in creative writing exercises that ask them to consider events from female characters’ points of view.
- What to do: Complement The Outsiders with readings that feature female protagonists and depict female characters with equal weight and complexity as male characters.
Depictions of Domestic Violence Can Be Troubling: While Ponyboy narrates his own journey of maturation, he also tells the tragedy of Johnny’s life. Abused and neglected at home, traumatized by beatings at the hands of gangs, Johnny dies feeling that it is better to have saved others than to go on living himself.
- What to do: Introduce the topic of domestic violence before you read about it in the novel. Provide students explicit instruction for how to discuss the issue with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
- What to do: Discuss how Johnny coped with his situation, and talk about what youth in your community can do if they are faced with domestic violence.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Outsiders
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on the diversity of masculinity. Ponyboy provides intimate portraits of the individuals who comprise the greasers. How does each define his masculinity? How does each view the path to becoming a successful, adult man?
Focus on class conflict. How does socioeconomic status affect the greasers and the Socs differently? To what extent are the class-based stereotypes that mark two groups justified?
Focus on the importance of parenting. How does Ponyboy’s understanding of the importance of parents develop over the course of the text? What does Ponyboy learn about Bob’s family, and how does his attitude toward Darry shift as a result?
Focus on the prevalence of violence. Violence within families and between gangs is a prominent motif in the text. What prompts violence in the novel? Specifically, what motivates Bob’s violence toward Johnny? Which instances of violence are justified, and which aren’t?